The artists behind the whimsy, from the new Morristown exhibition at the Arts Council

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Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered, “What in the world was the artist thinking?”

betty mcgeehan
LET 'ER RIP! Sculptress Betty McGeehan shows off her copper masterpiece, 'Politics,' at the 'Whimsy' exhibition in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The beauty of exhibition openings is you can collar the artist, who often has sipped enough wine to give you a candid answer.

At Friday’s opening of Whimsy, a six-month show at the Gallery at 14 Maple, the Morristown home of the Arts Council of the Morris Area, the stories behind the art works were as entertaining as the objects themselves.

“Everything’s been so depressing. We thought, what’s going to give you hope?” said exhibition curator Mary Kate O’Hare, explaining the “whimsy” theme.

Few pieces are more whimsical than Betty McGeehan’s Politics, a copper toilet tank attached to a megaphone.

Betty has been working with found objects ever since visiting her father’s family in Germany two decades ago. She met 45 cousins…and discovered they all were artists.

She already had begun sculpting after back surgery. Bed-ridden for a year, she sculpted atop a tray she perched on her stomach.

When she returned from Germany, however, her art struck her as soul-less. She liked the notion of finding disparate elements and “putting them together, like a family could be,” said the Morristown resident.

Betty learned to weld, and began assembling bits from junk cars (including a Model T) and other detritus.

“I put them together, but you can’t see how they’re put together,” she said. “It’s like magic.”

How does Betty support herself as an artist?

“I got divorced!”

* * *

Is art good for you?  Marv Kaminsky can tell you, for a fee. The photographer’s day job is freelance toxicology.

When he is not snapping pictures like his wry Coney Island Art, which depicts a kitschy picture-within-a-picture painted on a building near the amusement park, he is telling drug companies whether their latest miracle treatments will cure or kill you.

He started getting serious about photography at the 1964 World’s Fair, and helped pay his way through graduate school by freelancing for newspapers and shooting for calendars.

When asked about the toxicological effects of inhaling darkroom chemicals for decades, Marv became philosophical.

“We’re scaring ourselves to death,” he said. “We’re exposed to a lot of things in our lives, a lot of toxic things. Our body handles it. It’s all a matter of dose.”

* * *

Ariana Mirabile of Point Pleasant looks much younger than her 28 years–certainly, too young to remember the Coney Island freak shows that are the subject of her 12-print entry, Toney.

Turns out those shows were part of her family’s folklore.  Ariana’s great-aunt was in one of those exhibits, as a premature baby in an incubator.

ariana mirabile
Ariana Mirabile with her series, 'Toney,' at the 'Whimsy' exhibition hosted by the Arts Council of the Morris Area. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“They has a hospital on Coney Island, and the doctor who invented the incubator was there,” Ariana said. The babies were behind glass, and the public would pay for a glimpse, according to the artist, who studied art at Montclair State University.

Toney is a series of prints from a 1920 photo depicting the Alligator Skin Boy. Ariana put a bunch of comical shorts on the character.

“The whole idea was taking something really different and creepy and making it fun,” she said, “so you’re not focusing any more on his differences.”

Most of her watercolors have a “little strangeness” too,  she acknowledged.

“I’m such a smiley, happy person. All my work is dark,” said Ariana, who created the Coney Island series in sunny Florence, Italy.

* * *

Janis Borbas, an art teacher at Whippany’s Bee Meadow School, was thrilled to be chosen for Whimsy, her first exhibition. Her mixed-media creation, It’s a Party, is a soft, furry, playful thing made from colored yarn and “the stiff stuff you put in collars.” It took 50 hours to make.

“I love anything you can touch,” Janis said. “This (piece) wants to be touched.”

Of course, we all have feelings. But Janis, she has feltings.

“I do a lot of feltings,” she said.

Her love of sewing has led her to Kean University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in art with a concentration in… fibers.

Next time someone asks “What is art?” remember Janis, and answer confidently: “I know it when I feel it.”

* * *

Future generations may remember newspapers as curiosities used for wrapping fish or lighting fireplaces.

Riccardo Berlingeri believes newspapers are much more vital than that, and he is memorializing them with sculptures like Brainstorm, a mass of crumpled strands of newsprint perched atop a stack of New York Times editions from Riccardo’s basement. It’s all held together with copious amounts of Elmer’s Glue.

Riccardo, 65, launched his crusade two years ago after losing his job as an art history teacher in New York.

The implosion of the newspaper industry disturbs him.

“I believe we need to know what’s going on,” said the Italian immigrant. “We need to evaluate a complete view of what’s going on, to understand who we are, what we are doing, and what we are going to be.”

He said the focused attention of web-surfing cannot replace the serendipity of a newspaper.

“I believe the physicality of a newspaper is so important, because everything is there. You can go back to the news you didn’t like, you can go back two days later.”

Brainstorm lists for $8,000, which some publisher should be able to afford after another round or two of layoffs.

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